GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Directing: C-
Acting: C+
Writing: D+
Cinematography: C-
Editing: C
Special Effects: C

When I saw Godzilla back in 2014, I had high hopes for director Gareth Edwards, who had in 2010 made a name for himself with the indie alien mystery Monsters. That film revealed a director with real potential, which made Godzilla all the more disappointing. That movie spent its first half being static and lifeless before turning into an even worse disaster movie than 2012.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, now, overcompensates for that previous lifelessness by jumping right into the action — although I use “action” loosely here, as it would be more accurate to call this film a “mess of chaos.”

Why did I even bother seeing this movie, you might wonder? I’m wondering the same thing. I literally went to it thinking to myself, These movies are never very good, I don’t know why I keep coming back. My only defense is that I held on to the idea that I knew full well it would be dumb, but the spectacle might me fun on its own terms. Some blockbuster special effects extravaganzas do work that way.

Well, not this one. This movie has not one redeeming quality. The closest it gets is that some parts of it are merely average — the acting, for instance — rather than terrible.

Otherwise, I hardly know where to begin. I found myself thinking, Why the hell would that happen? so many times, I can’t think of any specific examples. Maybe when Godzilla bites off one of the heads of the three-headed rival “alpha predator” that was reawakened in Antarctica, then that head literally grows right back in a matter of seconds, and this is explained away by somehow figuring out that it’s the one monster that is an alien, whereas all the others are actually native to Earth? That ridiculousness is just the tip of the iceberg here.

If I were Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Charles Dance, Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, Sally Hawkins, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., or David Strathairn, I would be embarrassed to be in this movie, but apparently none of them are. I guess they’re all happy to act proud of this mess since they got a nice paycheck? Presumably they got paid up front: King of the Monsters made half in its opening weekend what the previous Godzilla did. And trust me, no word of mouth is going to save this one: you might think that earning $80 million so far is nothing to shake a stick at, except it cost $170 million to make!

What a colossal waste of money. The special effects are subpar, the lighting is almost always too dark to get a visual handle on what the hell is going on, the editing makes it impossible to get any real sense of continuity, and this is in action set piece after action set piece that make up about 80% of the movie. Director and co-writer Michael Dougherty (Krampus) never takes things down a notch long enough to allow any time for the story to breathe. On the few occasions things do slow down, it’s apparently just to insult our intelligence.

At the beginning of our “story,” such as it is, it’s been five years ago since “the attacks” on San Francisco, and for reasons no one can explain, Godzilla has been in hiding all this time. We find Kyle Chandler’s Mark Russell off somewhere studying wolves — which evidently involves taking pictures of a pack feeding on a carcass, using a long lens from behind a nearby log otherwise exposed in a massive field. This is the “foundation” for which we learn about “apex predator” behaviors later applied to Godzilla, and the three-headed monster, and how all the other long-dormant monsters frozen in time suddenly wake up and answer their calls in one way or another.

Vera Formiga’s Dr. Emma Russell has devised an audio contraption that apes these so-called apex predator commands and somehow can render them docile — if used correctly and in the right hands. All sorts of wrong hands come into play, the one exception being Mark and Emma’s daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who of course has more brains and logic than any of the adults around her, which in this movie isn’t saying much.

We do get brief shots of other “massive unidentified terrestrial organisms” (MUTOs, they actually call them that), by the way, with three or four very quick shots and/or references to “Kong.” This is a transparent attempt at laying the foundation for the next film in this “cinematic universe,” Godzilla vs. Kong, also co-written by Dougherty and already in post-production. I’m exhausted already. At this rate, no one is going to care what Kong or Godzilla are doing by next year. I already don’t.

I’d be tempted to say that at least this time around you get to see Boston get destroyed, but . . . honestly, it hardly matters. You can barely see the city at any given time. And it’s just the same shit in a different movie, with no characters you feel any need to get emotionally invested in. This movie is supposed to be a thrill ride but I lost my patience with it within fifteen minutes and soon after became so numb to the onslaught of nonsensical carnage that it literally made me drowsy. Maybe that’s this movie’s best defense: Godzilla: King of the Monsters works if you have insomnia!

Hey, let’s have a sleepver! And watch this movie to go to sleep!

Hey, let’s have a sleepver! And watch this movie to go to sleep!

Overall: C-

JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM

Directing: B
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+

“Guns. Lots of guns.” That’s what John Wick (Keanu Reeves) says he needs at one point in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, a movie with a subtitle that is Latin for prepare for war. In other words, this movie makes it perfectly clear it is one long, 130-minute setup for Chapter 4 (already confirmed for 2021). The ridiculous obsession with guns notwithstanding, I just can’t help myself anymore: I’m looking forward to it.

And that, really, is perhaps the great surprise of Parabellum. I actually found Chapter 2, released two years ago, to be slightly more fun than this franchise’s first installment, released two and a half years before that. Every one of these movies is about elaborately staged, beautifully photographed gunfights and hand to hand combat, all in the name of revenge. It was only the first one, however, that wallowed in John Wick’s grief. That made it less fun, being weighed down by the grief of a super-assassin whose wife, and particularly whose dog, is dead.

Everybody worries about how John’s new dog will fare, never batting an eyelash at the massive human body count. I’m going to half-spoil something (gasp!) for Chapter 3: two new dogs are introduced, who get their own stunts that are pretty awesome in one action sequence in particular, and one of those dogs does get shot. But does it survive?? You’ll have to see the movie to find out!

Although they all average out to pretty solid B-grade movies, the John Wick franchise accomplishes the rare feat of getting slightly better with each installment. It’s the writing in particular that gets better; the action is consistently great. Granted, the dialogue only improves slightly. Even with great new actors added to the supporting cast — in this case, Halle Berry, Anjelica Huston and Asia Kate Dillon — the parts don’t offer any great acting challenge. At least Halle Berry gets to participate in some of the action. She’s the one with her own two dogs. They do a lot of chomping down on guys’ crotches.

I found myself thinking about Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies while watching Parabellum. These movies have a lot in common, right down to the revenge plots. The difference is that the John Wick scripts don’t have a fraction of the wit. Neither do they marinate themselves in self-love in the form of pop culture references. I’d say John Wick is a much more straightforward continuation of a particular action thriller tradition.

The whole revenge figures far less prominently this time. Rather, Parabellum is about, as gets stated more than once by more than one character, “Consequences.” It’s the butterfly effect of rogue super-assassin actions. Director Chad Stahelski (who directed both the other John Wick films and fittingly began his career as a stunt coordinator) drops us into the middle of action from the opening shot, as a $14 million bounty has been placed on John’s head. With every other assassin alive eager to collect, Parabellum opens with a thrilling sequence of John getting chased, fought, and escaping several close calls. In the first fifteen minutes or so alone, we see John running on foot, on a motorcycle across a bridge, and even riding through Manhattan on a horse. (While still in the stable he randomly finds himself inside, he uses a few horses ingeniously as kicking weapons.)

And so it goes, through pretty much this entire movie, with John Wick making deals, getting double crossed, collecting debts, incurring debts, and fighting all along the way — in often ingeniously designed sets. We see the return of Ian McShane as Winston, the manager of the Continental Hotel that serves as a haven for assassins, Lance Reddick as its concierge, and Laurence Fishburne as the “Bowery King,” whatever that is, I haven’t quite figured that out. It’s best not to question logic too much in these movies; that’s not what they’re here for.

How long will Keanu Reeves be here for these movies, I wonder? The guy was 50 years old the year this franchise started, five years ago. It could be said, I suppose, he’s the new Liam Nisson; John Wick is Keanu Reeves’s answer to the Taken movies: senior citizen as action movie star. Reeves is arguably a less talented actor, but he fits the part a lot better. Quiet stoicism might be this guy’s greatest talent. These movies get just-so slightly better each time, and the man at their center is a consistently useful avatar for their admittedly shallow themes. Their cleverness exists in the execution of their action choreography, and that’s what gives them a thrill all their own.

The writing is on the wall. In the form of guns.

The writing is on the wall. In the form of guns.

Overall: B

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directing: C+
Acting: B
Writing: C
Cinematography: C
Editing: C-
Special Effects: B

The more I think about it, the more I find myself resenting this movie. Captain America: Endgame is on track to be the biggest global box office success of all time, and I would argue it’s the least deserving of that distinction of any film in history. The same could have been said of the previous record holder, Avatar (2009), but at least that movie had stunning, cutting edge special effects going for it.

Otherwise, when it comes to the record breakers, I guess this is just the new normal. At least Titanic (1997), corny as it was, had a certain gravitas thanks to the backdrop of genuine history. Who remembers anything about Avatar now except for its unprecedented effects? It didn’t even have any memorable lines, nothing worthy of enduring parody, no “I’ll never let go, Jack!” And what has Avengers: Endgame got? Just a bunch of people collecting paychecks. What will be remembered about this movie in another ten years? Literally nothing. (Side note: none of these “broken records” mean anything at all when adjusted for inflation, in which case Gone with the Wind still remains the most successful movie in history. And that, in context, actually makes sense.)

I would have had so much more respect for the Marvel Cinematic Universe if it had just ended with Infinity War, a bold, tragic end with half of life wiped out of the universe. But I knew even then, when I saw half of these heroes blow away into dust, there was no reason to think any of that was permanent, no reason for any true emotional investment in any of their fates. Superheroes were long established as all of them basically gods — not just Thor and Loki. Death doesn’t mean anything in this universe, even when it’s disintegration, and therefore neither does risk. Seriously what reason do we have to care?

That said, Endgame is not without its sacrifices, some of them with what at least appears to be permanence, and for that at least, I am glad. The whole plot revolves around the use of time travel to get everyone back, which is beyond predictable (and therefore hardly a spoiler), where characters point out the logical fallacies of time travel in several other movies famously based on time travel, while inventing logical fallacies all their own — not to mention self-contradictions. This might as well be a continuation of the Back to the Future franchise, which itself gets name checked.

Where I’ll give Endgame some credit, is in the sacrifices its characters actually make — none of them based on a plot device that can transparently be reversed with age-old storytelling tropes. This is where the movie actually managed to touch my emotions. Much has been said of how many times people have cried watching this movie, and I am not above admitting that I teared up myself at least twice. In fact it was exactly because of this expectation, the assertion that this film carries a surprising amount of emotional heft, that I opted to open my mind to it and actually go see it in the theatre — and I had not given Infinity War the same courtesy (hence my never having written a review of it). When I finally watched Infinity War on Netflix, I found it to be surprisingly entertaining, clever and funny, at least until that ending that was supposed to be shocking but kind of made me roll my eyes and say “Whatever!” By contrast, Endgame is comparatively overlong and disappointing.

I like a three-hour movie to earn its run time. This one clearly thinks it does just that, by asserting itself as the marker of the end of an era, the final chapter of twenty-two movies over twelve years. Endgame finds the time to callback something from probably every single one of them, some given more weight than others. Natalie Portman, with no lines, gets seen for about three seconds. Our heroes deposit themselves into the action of several of the previous movies, several of which had been terrible. The effect of retreading previous installments of the franchise very much has the effect of . . . you guessed it! Back to the Future Part II.

Sadly, that movie came out in 1989, which means a great many in Endgame’s audience is far too young to have any idea how unoriginal these Marvel movies really are. And I am not averse to superhero movies based on their very idea — I am averse to them based on recent history. I make exceptions for the exceptional: Black Panther, or even Captain Marvel. Those movies find new things to say, new ways of looking at this universe and new kinds of heroes to feature. They have a new take that is worthy of attention. Avengers: Endgame is the same shit, different movie — with an extra hour of it!

Speaking of Captain Marvel, she is criminally under-utilized, brought in intermittently as a secret weapon only to get outshone by other characters with longer histories even though she is more compelling. The same thing happened with Black Panther in the last Avengers movie. A successful ensemble piece is one thing; tokenism is another.

What about the special effects in this one, then? Maybe that is worth a look? Arguably, yes — I have never seen motion capture this nuanced, particularly on the faces of Mark Ruffalo as The Hulk and Josh Brolin as Thanos. But if you take your eyes away from the astonishing detail of their facial expressions and look at their entire bodies, you’ll see that they still just look like cartoons. As usual, this is technology very much still in development, and unlike practical effects rendered with truly skilled precision, this is all going to look dated before you know it. No movie top-heavy with CGI effects in the first couple decades of this century is going to have a very long visual shelf life.

If there is anything that sets Endgame apart, it is merely its position as a marker of the end of an era. if you have been deeply invested in all these movies since the first Iron Man in 2008, then I can see how affecting Endgame can be for you. I get that, I really do. But just imagine how much more affecting it could have been as something better! Because trust me, this could have been better. Instead, with all the callbacks and cameos, we get a movie franchise that basically sees its own life flash before its eyes. And that “Marvel Cinematic Universe” life, on the whole, was not a great one.

Marching off to a destiny of oblivion.

Marching off to a destiny of oblivion.

Overall: C+

SHAZAM!

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-
Special Effects: B

Let’s get real: if you’re the type who is interested in any and all of the countless superhero/comic book movies now in existence, and you have an affinity for the lighter-hearted ones, you’re going to have a great time watching Shazam! You have no reason to read any more of this review. I mean really, why are you even here?

But, for the rest of us? Shazam! is still a pretty great time — for the last three quarters of its run time. Otherwise, it’s tonally inconsistent, has an under cooked plot, and would have benefited from greater depth.

I say all this with the full understanding that most of this movie’s fans won’t give a shit about such things. So what if I’d say I found it a worthy matinee, but feel no need to recommend anyone else rush out and see it? No one’s going to decided not to see it based on my recommendation.

I still have to pick it apart a bit anyway. Isn’t that what we’re all here for?

It could easily be said that Shazam! is one of, say, the two best DC Comics films of the modern era — the other being, of course, Wonder Woman. The two movies are of roughly the same level of quality, but for different reasons. It is, of course, easy to call them the best of recent DC output because, well, that’s a pretty low bar.

Shazam!’s biggest problem is a pretty big one: the first quarter of it unfolds in a strangely inorganic way, never quite achieving the tone of wide-eyed delight that the rest of the movie manages. This is kid of a long way to get to that point, especially when we’re introduced to 14-year-old Billy Batson (16-year-old Asher Angel) as a foster kid who, while he amuses himself with pranks involving the theft of police cars, is perpetually sullen and resentful, consumed with finding the mother who abandoned him as a small child.

So, when Billy suddenly finds himself randomly given the superpowers of an ancient order of wizards (and to say the backstory with the wizards has no meat to it is an understatement), it doesn’t naturally follow through that the grown-man superhero he becomes (played by Zachary Levi) would be more giddy about it than anything else.

That said, it is that giddiness that makes Shazam! so fun to watch, as Billy figures out through trial and error what his superpowers are, with the help of his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, giving the best performance in the movie). Billy has been re-homed into a large host family with a group of kids that are diverse in both age and ethnicity. One of the great running gags is the brain of a child — or teenager — inside the body of an adult. It’s kind of the superhero movie of the old Tom Hanks movie Big, where you find adults behaving like kids, but in funny and charmingly innocent ways.

This being a superhero movie, though, there must always be a supervillain, here in the form of Mark Strong playing Thaddeus, who we meet as a child in the movie’s oddly uncompelling opening sequence. He meets the wizard who is waiting for the person who is “pure of heart” who can take on his powers and guard against the demon monsters who represent the seven deadly sins (why? you got me!). He is deemed not pure enough of heart; the rejection becomes a lifelong obsession; he finds a way to become possessed by said seven “sin demons,” who represent one of the several plot points of the movie that don’t really work.

When Shazam! focuses on Billy, his delight at suddenly being superhuman, and his totally realistic 14-uear-old way of handling it, the movie works quite well, and makes for a lot of witty entertainment. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi both pair well with Jack Dylan Grazer as the foster brother, and the evolution of their familial friendship makes for good storytelling. The same cannot quite be said of the subplot of Billy’s search for his birth mother, or certainly of the ancient wizard with no particularly clear backstory, or smoky sin-demons terrorizing a Philadelphia holiday carnival. Who has a full scale carnival at Christmastime, anyway? That’s weird.

Much of the movie is well shot, though. The superhero and the supervillain can both fly, and there are some battle scenes both far above the city of Philadelphia and following them as they fly past downtown skyscrapers which are pretty cool to look at. Incidentally, this movie exists in the “DC universe,” which means the characters are aware of both Superman and Batman, the latter of who gets a couple nice references and punch lines. Apparently in the DC universe, there is no New York City, only Metropolis for Superman; Gotham City for Batman; and for Shazam . . . Philadelphia.

In short, Shazam! is not as good as it could have been or as I wanted it to be, but enough of it is uniquely entertaining to keep it from being a waste of time.

Also known as “Captain Sparkle Fingers!”

Also known as “Captain Sparkle Fingers!”

Overall: B

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+
Special Effects: B+

Original comic books are one thing — I can’t speak to those because I never read them. But in cinema, Captain Marvel is clearly Marvel’s answer to DC’s Wonder Womanand, honestly, the two films average out to being roughly equal quality. Where Wonder Woman faltered is in the areas where Captain Marvel excels, and vice versa. For instance: the opening sequence of Wonder Woman actually was wonderful, and made us all wish the entire story could have taken place on that island of Themyscira. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is quite deliberately incomprehensible in its opening sequences, the puzzle pieces only coming together for the viewer at the same time they do for the title character.

But! Wonder Woman’s fatal flaw — and this is hardly specific to that movie; it’s a flaw of far too many superhero movies — is the so-called “climactic” battle between hero and villain causing untold collateral damage at the end. Humor, used consistently and effectively, is arguably Captain Marvel, and it very nearly turns that particular trope into a punch line.

Maybe it’s not fair to compare this to Wonder Woman so much, except for the unfortunate thing they both have in common that sets it apart from other films: not only is the superhero at its center a woman, but in both cases they were subject to ridiculously overt, sexist backlash. Well, I am happy to report that both movies are laughing all the way to the bank.

That said, Captain Marvel has less to say about so-called “girl power,” the character’s womanhood being comparatively incidental. Now, to be sure, there are feminist nods here and there: a brief scene in which some schmo on a motorcycle suggests our hero “give me a smile”; a supporting character bristling at being called “young lady”; the 90s-rock-heavy soundtrack featuring No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” during a pivotal fight scene. But nods is all they are, and they are seamlessly woven into the narrative.

Captain Marvel does have a bit of magic to it, in that it’s open to meaning whatever audiences want it to mean to them. Maybe I’m just a big softy, but I actually got slightly teary at a montage of Captain Marvel’s alter ego Carol Danvers (a well cast Brie Larson) getting up after being nearly defeated by challenges throughout her childhood and young adulthood. It was a rare moment for a superhero movie, in which it offers something truly inspiring. Few others outside of Wonder Woman or (the admittedly far superior) Black Panther have managed such a thing.

As for the actual story here — it’s . . . fine. There are no particularly huge faults within the context of what this movie is, but neither does it stand out from most vantage points. There is a fun bit of cleverness, with its setting in the mid-nineties, and thereby serving as a sort of prequel to everything we have seen so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We get to find out how Nick Fury got that eye patch, for example.

Speaking of which, that brings us to the special effects, which are actually pretty impressive. Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg are both digitally de-aged for this movie, and that particular effect is uncanny. Some have said too much so — getting into pseudo-creepy “uncanny valley” territory — but I kept paying close attention to Samuel L. Jackson’s face in particular, the texture of his skin and how it shone in different shades of life, and found myself consistently impressed. There are other moments when characters are clearly being animated by CGI, so the overall effects job is not exactly perfect. But it veers between serviceable to amazing at times.

The same goes for Goose the cat, by far my favorite character in this movie — in fact, I would say he’s worth the price of admission alone — given my doubts when I heard some shots of the animal are CGI and in some cases it’s even a “realistic” puppet cat. Well, guess what? I could not readily see when a puppet cat was being used. And when CGI is detectable, it’s understandable, and often in service of well-used humor. And just trust me on this one: that cat has brings some delightful surprises. Especially at the end of the credits.

Getting back to the Wonder Woman parallels, there is even one for the Robin Wright role: in this movie, the “mentor woman” role is filled by Annette Bening. She is always a delight to see, although she is given so little meat to chew on here that it’s clearly just a paycheck job for her. When it comes to true nuance in performance, that pretty much all falls to Larson, although a sliver of it also goes to another character with shifting position in her life, played by a buffed up Jude Law.

Fundamentally, as in all superhero moves, it’s all just completely ridiculous, and Captain Marvel could have gone for, but has only a fraction of the deliberate cultural import of Black Panther. We’re getting to a point where even the movies that five years ago would have truly stood out for their casting and storytelling choices, are now becoming routine and less exceptional. We shan’t forget Goose the cat, however! Captain Marvel would still have been fun without him, but nowhere near as much so.

Goose is  my  Captain Marvel!

Goose is my Captain Marvel!

Overall: B

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-
Animation: A
Special Effects: A-

Now, here comes something truly unexpected: the second superhero movie within the space of a year to qualify as truly exceptional and worth seeing — more than once, even. It’s no secret that as a general rule I avoid going to theatres to see superhero movies. This “Marvel Cinematic Universe” crap overstayed its welcome and over-saturated the market ages ago, ten years and twenty movies in having long since adopted the same story arc over and over, and over and over. Maybe their blockbuster special effects extravaganza aesthetic still wows the kids, but for bona fide grownups, it’s frankly boring as hell.

How many times do we need to sit through the same plot where the entire world — or hell, the entire universe — is threatened by less and less memorable villains, then “saved” by increasingly bland heroes in which we have no emotional investment because we know they are generally immortal? Okay, I hear — spoiler alert! — half the heroes in the latest Avengers movie perish, so one might argue that raises the stakes. I would continue arguing the opposite, in a cinematic world now characterized by remakes, reboots, and sequels that find creative ways to resurrect characters. I stopped caring because these stories stopped giving me reason to.

—Except! As with anything, I still make exceptions for the exceptional. And when one of these movies comes along that branches out from the primary goal of turning every multiplex into mere housing for superhero movies made to break box office records, and has something vital to say or represent, I will give it a look. I did for last year’s Wonder Woman, a solid-B movie with its heart in the right place but still marred by a forgettable villain who, as usual, just destroys everything in his wake in a battle meant to be climactic but in its roteness was rendered anything but. I did for this year’s Black Panther, a film so nearly perfect that it is rightfully expected to become the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture.

And now, I do it for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a film that surprises at nearly every level: storytelling, themes, truly gorgeous animation, special effects, cinematography. How could a movie be this good coming after not one, but two franchise reboots in the past decade alone, or after the character has appeared in eight films in the past sixteen years? Well, it does it by changing the rules.

Here’s a novel approach: what if a comic book movie literally felt like you were inside the pages of a comic book? Characters read comic books about Spider-Man; the screen splits into panels; occasionally comic-book style text boxes appear in the midst of the beautifully rendered action. Mind you, this occurs relatively sparingly, which keeps the technique fresh.

3-D is another thing I generally avoid as a rule, finding it to be a racket to raise ticket prices for visuals not at all enhanced by the process. Again, there are exceptions, usually thanks to visionary directors deliberately doing something new with the medium. Actually being shot in 3D instead of having the effect grafted on retroactively is by and large a prerequisite. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 3D but found it to be my only option at the showtime I needed to see it. With an AMC Stubbs “A-List” monthly membership it comes at no extra cost, so I thought, what the hell. Now this is one of the rare films I would recommend be seen in 3-D. There is little doubt it works fine in standard 2-D, but the 3-D enhances the effect of being inside comic book panels, and does it quite well.

And then of course, does anyone remember the racist uproar over the idea of Marvel Comics introducing a black Spider-Man several years ago? As it happens, that was specifically about the character we are introduced to in film here, Miles Morales (charmingly voiced by Shameik Moore). He’s got a Black dad (Brian Tyree Henry) and a Puerto Rican mom (Luna Lauren Velez) and they live in Brooklyn. This is a story about a young Black/Latino Spider-Man and it’s wonderful.

It’s also effectively self-aware, with narration saying things like “Okay, let’s go through this one more time,” and quickly recapping how our hero was bitten by a radioactive spider. There being such a thing in the underground New York tunnels where Miles is doing spray art with his Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) doesn’t make much sense, but who cares? The spider logo eventually seen on the “Black Spider-Man” suit being rendered as though spray painted is an especially nice touch.

And I haven’t even gotten into the whole multiverse idea, have I? Here is where Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse mercifully ignores the typical MCU idea that all Marvel superheroes exist in the same world (thereby overwhelming virtually all stories about them) — here, there is only Spider-Man. Well, in this dimension, anyway. This film’s primary villain, The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), has built a particle accelerator meant to retrieve his dead wife and son from another dimension, but when this world’s current Spider-Man (voiced by Chris Pine) is fatally mixed up in its use, it brings several versions of Spider-Man from other dimensions into this one: “Peter B. Parker” (Jake Johnson); Gwen Stacey’s Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld); the anime-style Japanese girl from the future, Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), with a robot friend powered by her radioactive spider from fourth-millennium New York; the black and white “Spider-Man Noir” (Nicholas Cage) from 1930s New York; and even the cartoon “Peter Porker / Spider-Ham” (John Mulaney).

This is a whole lot of detail to cram into a two-hour movie, what with its opportunities for humor as well as endless references to characters and stories that all previously existed in actual comic books (most of which I probably missed; this movie will be a comic book nerd’s dream). Amazingly, even with two writers (Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman) and three directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman), all these references and comic touches are seamlessly woven into a tightly packed and tightly polished narrative. From beginning to end, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a swiftly paced, gorgeously rendered animated film authentically honoring comic book storytelling in a way other films about superheroes never do.

This is a film with nothing cynical at its heart, even as it recognizes how overplayed some of its tropes are. This is one movie that builds on those tropes rather than rehashing them, and it’s a consistent delight throughout.

Diversity in action: the Spider-Verse gang.

Diversity in action: the Spider-Verse gang.

Overall: A-

ASSASSINATION NATION

Directing: B+
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

Assassination Nation is basically an ultra-violent feminist revenge fantasy. Full disclosure: that kind of makes it my jam.

It’s far from perfect. But when a quartet of teenage girls are turning this country’s love of guns on its head, annihilating their mid-sized town’s institutionalized misogyny, basically in justifiable self-defense, who gives a shit? This is the kind of movie Quentin Tarantino might have made if he weren’t a willfully ignorant shit bag. Writer-director Sam Levinson knows what’s up.

Granted, it took me a minute to come around to this movie. Taking a hard look at our social media, tech-obsessed culture isn’t exactly novel, and near the beginning, as we meet Lily (Odessa Young) and her three best friends, there’s a fairly chaotic sequence with an extended period of split screen with three panels of action to follow. I found myself thinking, if the whole movie is like this, I’m not going to like it nearly as much as I wanted to.

I suppose you could call this a satire, except the satirical elements veer between lacking clarity and being far too obvious. The story, in which an entire town goes wild after an unidentified hacker leaks half of their entire digital histories for public consumption, is wildly contrived — the time it takes for any effective law enforcement to arrive strains credibility. Then again, to over-focus on that misses the point.

Levinson has much to say about our culture’s double standards, pretty much none of it new. The key is how he says it — and to his credit, that does set this movie apart. And once those nearly incomprehensible early scenes level off, the story propels forward with a kinetic energy aided by a propulsive soundtrack and exceptional editing.

One scene in particular stands out. Lily and her friends Bex, Em and Sarah (Hari Nef, Abra and Suki Waterhouse, respectively) have been falsely accused of perpetrating these leaks, and a mob of self-appointed town vigilantes have secretly descended upon the house in which they hang out. The camera steadily swoops from one side of the house to the other and back, gazing in through windows and sliding glass doors, observing attackers as they make their way inside and capture them. It’s a sequence as suspenseful as those in the best thrillers.

It devolves into a shootout, as does a whole lot of the rest of the movie. Characters you’re rooting for die, and it gets very bloody very quickly. The flip side is that these young women are given agency not often seen in movies at all, let alone in movies of this sort.

Bex, by the way, is a young trans woman, played by — wait for it! — a young trans woman. Specifically, model Hari Nef. This should be incidental, but we still live in a world where this is important. For a while I wondered if she was playing a cisgender woman, which would have been a forward-thinking choice in its own right. But then Bex identifies herself as trans, as she declares no empathy whatsoever for the town’s mayor, the first victim of a hack — because he was a conservative politician working against queer equality. Actually, more than once, the way Bex puts it is “LGBTQIAA people,” and it’s delivered with no resentment whatsoever at having to rattle off all those letters. (It took me a while to figure out why the two A’s — oh, right: asexual and allies.) And while that mayor’s hypocrisy brings him down, his proclivities are treated with unusual respect: when photos of him cross-dressing are made public, these kids only zero in on his terrible taste in lingerie.

Lily and her other friends are generally indifferent to all this, except when Lily suggests empathy even for those who might be their enemy. By and large, all three girls are preoccupied with typical stuff, albeit with some vaguely dark undertones — such as Lily’ predictably problematic sexting relationship with her much-older neighbor (Joel McHale). Lily gets some threatening online messages early on from the unknown hacker, and she’s smart enough to look up the IP address at their source. Of course, this digital meddling clearly designed to pitch everyone in this town against each other comes from . . . Moscow, Russia. You can’t get much more on the nose than that but whatever.

The crux of it all, really, comes down to Lily being slut shamed, thanks to the hundreds of selfies taken in various states of undress texted to her neighbor, now open for the entire pubic to see. But Assassination Nation also takes aim at mob mentality and knee-jerk reactions in public shaming, such as when the local high school principal gets hacked, and the town goes apeshit and accuses him of being a pedophile because he happens to have naked photos of his daughter when she was six. They all live in world where everything is sexualized, and then sexuality is demonized.

After the bloodbath that is the movie’s final twenty minutes or so, sort of John Wick meets Carrie for the 21st century, the central mystery of who was really behind the leaks is revealed. It includes a kicker of a last line that evokes the notion that “some people just want to watch the world burn” — filtered through the stereotypical vapidity of Generation Z. Honestly the gun fighting gets a little tedious well before we get to that point, but again, maybe that’s also the point.

A fair amount of Assassination Nation is overstuffed, overdone and overblown. That didn’t stop me from having a blast watching these young women turn the tables and kick some ass of their own — even if it looks increasingly like their defiance is simply an act of taking their adversaries down with them. The movie’s opening title sequence includes a litany of “trigger warnings” — all the sex and violence and abuse and assault and attempted assault you’re about to see. It’s about a town that makes a mess of things, and the movie itself is a bit of a mess at times. But it’s an exhilarating mess.

Who’s the bitch whore now?

Who’s the bitch whore now?

Overall: B+

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE -- FALLOUT

Directing: B+
Acting: B-
Writing: B
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Special Effects
: A-

As I sat watching Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible -- Fallout, a thought occurred to me that never had before. Sure, everyone knows this guy is an enduring movie star. But it could also be argued that he is not only the 21st-century equivalent of Sean Connery, but that no other actor working today comes close. This is a guy who, like Connery, could very well keep offering us these delightful action thrillers well into what for anyone else would be retirement years.

No disrespect to Daniel Craig, who has very well held his own as James Bond the past decade plus, but the mantle that Sean Connery had has really been passed on to Tom Cruise. In the <i>Mission: Impossible</i> universe (the <i>Impossiverse</i>?), Cruise has been going strong though six films, each of them well-oiled adventures more exciting than the last. Connery played Bond in seven films over 21 years from 1962 to 1983, when he was aged 32 through 53; Cruise has played Ethan hunt in six films over 22 years from 1996 to 2018, aged 34 through 56. And whatever camera tricks or cosmetic procedures may have been employed in either case, both actors remained remarkably handsome and fit through all those years. It's too bad Cruise in particular has spent so many years trying to convince us he's a lunatic but whatever. Onscreen, his charisma and appeal never wanes.

What's more, Mission: Impossible knows just how ridiculous it is, revels in it, and yet is presented with increasing sophistication each go-round. I'm not so naive as to say "sophistication" applies to the script: Fallout is as preposterous as ever, although at the very least we have something we can understand as the thing everyone is after: as opposed to, say, a "rabbit's foot," it's three little spheres of plutonium, intended for rogue use of nuclear weapons.

I've got to hand it to the marketing team for this movie. Much of what you see in the trailer is not what it seems. Instead of it giving away the entire movie as many trailers do, I found myself identifying scenes in which I knew a clip I had seen was coming. Instead of it feeling like a rerun, once that bit I had already seen was presented in its full context, it felt like payoff. This is the kind of movie it pays to see in a theatre.

What's more, the editing is competent enough that this time, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (the first repeat director in the franchise, having written and directed 2015's Rogue Nation) avoids what some might call a minor pitfall of many of the earlier films: starting off not just with a bang, but with a bit too much of a bang. The rest of the film shouldn't feel like a competition with the opening sequence -- and Fallout starts comparatively quiet. It settles into the spy-movie tone of the earlier days, until the inciting twist in the plot -- such as is it -- sets off the fuse that begins the title sequence.

Fallout just gets more and more thrilling from there. And although one has no need to have seen any of the other films to enjoy this one -- in spite of it being the first direct-continuation of the story in the previous film -- there are rewards in having seen the others. Michelle Monaghan returns as Julia from Mission: Impossible III (1996) -- I found her to have similar features to Rebecca Ferguson, who returns from Rogue Nation, but I got them straight eventually.

And then there are the stunts -- really, at this point, the only reason to watch any of these movies. They sure do like motorcycle chases: this is the third Mission: Impossible movie in a row to have one. Ditto helicopter chases -- another throwback to Mission: Impossible III, although this time it also includes helicopters rolling down snowy mountainsides, and hanging off cliffs. Oh, did I mention Ethan Hunt climbing a rock face? A throwback to the opening sequence of Mission: Impossible II!

I guess there are only so many modes of transportation you can chase someone in. That includes running, another standby of countless Tom Cruise films -- let alone Mission: Impossible -- and in one sequence, he runs for so long he almost seems to be trying to prove a point about it.

So does this movie offer anything new then? Arguably, not really. Unless you count the fact that everything you've seen in other movies, this movie does better. Much like Rogue Nation and Ghost Protocol (2011) before it, the chases and action sequences as shot with unique panache, in this instance by Rob Hardy, who deserves acknowledgment. Even blink-and-you-miss them scenes, involving no more than two characters talking, make a visual impact with their framing and staging. This blends well with excellent special effects now a hallmark of the franchise -- a far cry from the janky effects of the original film in 1996 -- in so doing never calling attention to themselves, but moving the story forward and keeping the viewer absorbed.

The acting, though, is . . . not great. It's wonderful to see Angela Basset as the head of the CIA; not so much to hear her phoning in her lines. Another character's death scene had me wondering if they'd even bothered rehearsing -- or doing multiple takes. Even Cruise himself seems less concerned with being convincing than with showing off the stunts he can do on his own. Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg are reliably amusing in their usual parts. Henry Cavil, in a part whose twist is identifiable a mile away, gives perhaps the best performance, but that's not saying much.

But that's what we've come for, isn't it? If you have no interest in this movie, then it isn't for you. If you even got this far in the review . . . why? Move along! The rest of us are here for death-defying skydive into lightning-riddled thunderclouds (itself a subtle visual nod to the dust storm in Ghost Protocol, perhaps). It's a truly spectacular sequence, a long, unbroken shot straight out of a plane and plunging through the air toward Paris (or was it London? whatever) below.

And there is so much more movie after that, all of it fun as hell and a thrill to experience. At 147 minutes this is by far the longest film in the franchise, but all of those minutes just fly by. What more can you ask for?

This man is 56 years old.

This man is 56 years old.

Overall: B+

SKYSCRAPER

Directing: C
Acting: C+
Writing: C-
Cinematography: C+
Editing: B-
Special Effects
: B

I was never going to think Skyscraper was great, but this is the thing: I love skyscrapers. How could I not see this? So here's what I did. I went with a friend to Happy Hour beforehand, and had three margaritas.

I didn't get drunk enough.

I was big on disaster movies as a kid. As a lover of skyscrapers, I particularly loved The Towering Inferno (1974). Kids seeing Skyscraper now at the age I first watched The Towering Inferno on VHS probably have no idea the latter movie ever even existed. That one was set in San Francisco and featured a fictional tower that had 138 floors -- only slightly far fetched for its time, as then the tallest building in the world in real life was the World Trade Center in New York City, which stood at 110 floors.

We now live in a world in which Dubai's Burj Khalifa stands with 163 floors, 2,717 feet. Any fictional "tallest building in the world" in 2018 has to up the ante yet again, so Skyscraper's The Pearl stands in Hong Kong at 220 stories. A brief media clip at the beginning of the film even gives height comparisons in a graphic: it "dwarfs the Burj Khalifa and triple the height of the Empire State Building." The Empire State Building has 102 floors, by the way. If The Pearl's 220 floors are tripe that height, those most be some seriously high individual floor ceilings. Maybe it's that 30-story "park" in the middle of the building.

The Pearl's design makes it look like a giant Twizzler stick with a gargantuan baseball wedged into the opening at the top. Or, you know, a pearl. Every single level has protruding ledges under the window panels that would never be part of any real-world skyscraper design, but hey, they sure are convenient for Dwayne Johnson to step on!

And what director Rawson Marshall Thurber does with this movie is no more than rip of equal parts of The Towering Inferno and Die Hard. The former movie was about hubris and greed resulting in a disastrous skyscraper fire; the latter about a terrorist hostage situation in a Los Angeles skyscraper (that one all of 40 floors) -- they both stand the test of time incredibly well. Skyscraper is about a criminal syndicate attacking a building, disabling its fire safety system, and setting it on fie; it was dated before it even got released.

I mean, I won't lie -- I had some fun watching it. "Some" being the telling, key word. Dwayne Johnson is watchable enough; Neve Campbell in the role of his wife is given far more agency than women ever are in these movie -- so, props for that. Johnson's ex-cop security analyst, in fact, only survives thanks to her. That part's pretty cool. Having one of their twin kids have asthma in a movie about being stuck in a burning building is a little on the nose.

All of the setup at the beginning of the movie, establishing the characters and the story, is so dull we might as well be looking at a live feed of a freshly painted wall. For the first half hour or so, Skyscraper redefines blandness. Once Johnson's Will Sawyer realizes his family is trapped in the otherwise not-yet filled residential portion of the tower, he finds his way inside -- via a construction crane. Here we get a couple sequences on par with the Mission: Impossible movies, as in ridiculously improbable. The difference is in sophistication of execution. Mission: Impossible movies are preposterous but have finesse. Skyscraper is preposterous and . . . dumb.

Too much of Skyscraper winds up devolving into unnecessary shootouts, which themselves have zero style. It's repetitive and monotonous enough to put you to sleep. At least until Neve Campbell starts kicking some ass. She's the best thing in this movie. Still, you can see that shit in any action movie. Get back to the death-defying stunts a thousand feet above the ground!

There's a maybe twenty minute stretch in the middle when Skyscraper transcends its eminent mediocrity and becomes truly gripping, in spite of its rampant idiocies. Even there, every single thing seen onscreen is executed far better in the jaw-dropping Burj Khalifa sequence in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011). That movie's available from Netflix right now and has been for several years. Honestly you should skip Skyscraper and just watch that.

Strike the pose: Dwayne Johnson flies over Hong Kong.

Strike the pose: Dwayne Johnson flies over Hong Kong.

Overall: C+

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: C-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Special Effects
: B+

The days of being in awe of the technical achievement of photorealistic CG dinosaurs are long since passed. Back in the day, with both the original Jurassic Park (1993) and its thrilling-if-dippy sequel The Lost World (1997), Steven Spielberg perfected the art of the long game, the subtle tease, the jaw-dropping reveal.

Five movies and 25 years into this franchise, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom has none of that. Its plot machinations are not just stupid, but oppressively stupid -- this script, by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, both of whom also worked on 2015's Jurassic World, makes the bland contrivances of Jurassic Park III (2001) look like Shakespeare.

I can't say that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is any better or worse than its predecessor, on the whole. With its mind-numbingly preposterous story, and its many objectively thrilling action set pieces, it sort of evens out. It's both worse and better on those respective fronts.

In a sense, director J.A. Bayona understands something Colin Trevorrow kind of didn't: what audiences want from this franchise so many installments in. You could call Jurassic World a reboot, or you could call it a sequel -- one that basically ignored the previous two sequels. It was also overly enamored with direct references to and nostalgia for the very first Jurassic Park, something it could never live up to.

Fallen Kingdom doesn't even try. All this one wants to do is thrill, and once it gets its idiotically hyper-sped plot gynmastics out of the way, it does that spectacularly.

The first half could be called Jurassic Volcano. The second half Jurassic Monster House. Things start at a macro level, with the fabled Isla Nublar threatened by a long dormant volcano about to erupt -- which, naturally, it waits to do until our heroes are all there, in a grand attempt to relocate the animals. Special effects in this movie may be unable to break new ground, but they sure are put to memorable and invigorating use. It even offers up some haunting imagery, helpless animals left to suffer an extinction level event as the boat floats away. Of course none of the people drown and they all conveniently get missed by all the flying volcanic cinder debris, but, whatever.

The comparatively few animals saved from the island are taken to the estate of one Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), an old business partner of John Hammond. Lest things get any less than totally ridiculous, a dino auction is staged. Can you guess whether things go wrong? Well, here's the cool part: it's where the macro turns into the micro, and we get dinosaurs loose inside a giant mansion. It becomes a bit of a haunted house movie, except instead of ghosts it's actual monsters.

Granted, one of them is a creature genetically cross bred between a Tyrannosaurus rex and a velociraptor -- one of the many things in this movie that make you think, Really? I mean, if we can actually grow a human ear on a rat, then, why not? Granted, I don't think a rat has ever been given a blood transfusion with human blood. And in this movie a velociraptor gets a blood transfusion with T-rex blood. While strapped to a gourney in the back of a truck.

Oh, just go with it! In the last movie we got a trained velociratpor, after all -- as if! -- and "Blue" returns this time around, offering one of several more callbacks to the original Jurassic Park -- they're just much more subtle this time around. There are also parallels to The Lost World: Jurassic Park (at least this one has greater logic in full titling), what with poachers on an island of free-range dinosaurs, and dinosaurs being transferred to a residential setting.

I think the advantage Fallen Kingdom has over its predecessor is its innate inability to disappoint. No one is coming to this movie expecting brilliance, or any of the provocative ideas given serious consideration upon this franchise's inception. At best we get a cameo by Jeff Goldblum as "chaotician" Ian Malcolm -- now in his third one of these movies -- offering the same basic concepts as rehashed platitudes to a Senate committee hearing. (Boring. Bring on the dinosaurs!)

No one with a working brain could in good conscience call Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom a "good movie." They could quite accurately, however, call it a hell of a lot of fun. I had a blast. Honestly, its ending is the freshest thing about it, ironically as a means of finally arriving at the inevitable with these movies. And, miracle of miracles, it makes me excited for the next one, as it ushers us into a new environment that finally lives up to the title Jurassic World.

A few things go bump in the night.

A few things go bump in the night.

Overall: B